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R&D misdirection and the circuitous US path to artificial general intelligence

R&D misdirection and the circuitous US path to artificial general intelligence

Image by CDD20 on Pixabay

Big tech has substantial influence over the direction of R&D in the US. According to the National Science Foundation and the Congressional Research Service, US business R&D spending dwarfs domestic Federal or state government spending on research and development. The most recent statistics I found include these:

R&D funding sourceAnnual R&D spendingInformation source and most recent report date
Federal agencies$184 billionFederal Research and Development (R&D)Funding: FY2024, Congressional Research Service, May 19, 2023. The US Federal fiscal year ends on September 30. Actuals reported were for FY 2022.
State agencies$2 billion (excludes $691 million in Federal funds spent by state agencies)FY 2022 Survey of State Government Research and Development, sponsored by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) within the National Science Foundation. Most states’ fiscal years end on June 30.
Business (domestic R&D)$602 billion2021 Business Enterprise Research and Development (BERD) Survey, compiled by National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) within the National Science Foundation (NSF). The US Census Bureau collected and tabulated the data.
US National Science Foundation and the Congressional Research Service, 2024

Of course, business R&D spending focuses mainly on development–76 percent versus 14 percent on applied research and seven percent on basic research. 

Most state R&D spending is also development-related, and like the Federal variety tends to be largely dedicated to sectors such as healthcare that don’t directly impact system-level transformation needs.

Private sector R&D is quite concentrated in a handful of companies with dominant market shares and capitalizations. From a tech perspective, these companies might claim to be on the bleeding edge of innovation, but are all protecting cash cow legacy stacks and a legacy architecture mindset. The innovations they’re promoting in any given year are the bright and shiny objects, the VR goggles, the smart watches, the cars and the rockets. Meanwhile, what could be substantive improvement in infrastructure receives a fraction of their investment. Public sector R&D hasn’t been filling in these gaps.

A nonprofit example of misdirected investment

Back in the 2010s, I had the opportunity to go to a few TTI/Vanguard conferences, because the firm I worked for had bought an annual seat/subscription. 

I was eager to go. These were great conferences because the TTI/V board was passionate about truly advanced and promising emerging tech that could have a significant impact on large-scale systems. Board members–the kind of people who the Computer History Museum designates as CHM fellows once a year–had already made their money and names for themselves. The conferences were a way for these folks to keep in touch with the latest advances and with each other, as well as a means of entertainment.

One year at a TTI/V event, a chemistry professor from Cornell gave a talk about the need for liquid, olympic swimming pool-sized batteries. He was outspoken and full of vigor, pacing constantly across the stage, and he had a great point. Why weren’t we storing the energy our power plants were generating? It was such a waste not to store it. The giant liquid batteries he described made sense as a solution to a major problem with our infrastructure.

This professor was complaining about the R&D funding he was applying for, but not receiving, to research the mammoth liquid battery idea. As a researcher, he’d looked into the R&D funding situation. He learned after a bit of digging that lots and lots of R&D funding was flowing into breast cancer research.

I immediately understood what he meant. Of course, breast cancer is a major, serious issue, one that deserves significant R&D funding. But the professor’s assertion was that breast cancer researchers couldn’t even spend all the money that was flowing in–there wasn’t enough substantive research to soak up all those funds.

Why was so much money flowing into breast cancer research? I could only conclude that the Susan G. Komen for the Cure (SGKC) foundation was so successful at its high-profile marketing efforts that they were awash in donations. 

As you may know, the SGKC is the nonprofit behind the pink cure breast cancer ribbons, the pink baseball bats, cleats and other gear major sports teams don from time to time. By this point, the SGKC owns that shade of pink. Give them credit–their marketing is quite clever.  Most recently, a local TV station co-hosted an SGKC More than Pink Walk in the Orlando, FL metro area.

The European Union’s public/private R&D investment model

I don’t begrudge SGKC their success. As I mentioned, I actually admire their abilities. But I do bemoan the fact that other areas with equivalent or greater potential impact are so underfunded by comparison, and that public awareness here in the US is so low when it comes to the kind of broadly promising systems-level R&D that the Cornell chemistry professor alluded to that we’ve been lacking.

By contrast, the European Union’s R&D approach over the past two decades has resulted in many insightful and beneficial breakthroughs. For example, in 2005 the Brain and Mind Institute of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland won a Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagship grant to reverse engineer the brain from the European Commission, as well as funding from the Swiss government and private corporations. 

For over 15 years, this Blue Brain Project succeeded in a number of areas, including a novel algorithmic classification scheme announced in 2019 for identifying and naming different neuron types such as pyramidal cells that act as antennae to collect information from other parts of the brain. This was work that benefits both healthcare and artificial intelligence.

Additionally, the open source tooling the Project has developed included Blue Brain Nexus, a standards-based knowledge graph designed to simplify, scale the sharing and enable the findabilty of various imagery and other media globally. 

I hope the US, which has seemed to be relatively leaderless on the R&D front over the past decade, can emulate more visionary European efforts like this one from the Swiss in the near future.